Alex Patia: Chasing Birds in Washington
interview by Nick Engelfried | photos by Alex Patia
For Alex Patia, birding isn’t just a hobby—it’s a way of life. On any given weekend, he’s likely to be driving hundreds of miles to sites across Washington, searching for the rarest, newest and most elusive birds spotted in the state. So far this year he has seen 297 bird species in Washington, earning the title of state’s “top birder” from the widely used website eBird. Patia’s goal is to see more than 350 Washington birds by year’s end, a personal record. He’s closing in on it fast.
How did you become a serious birder?
Alex Patia: My very first memory is being in my aunt and uncle’s backyard in California, and them having me hold out a peanut so a jay would come take it from my hand. I’ve always been fascinated by birds, but I didn’t get really serious until 2013. I was visiting my folks in Illinois and saw thousands of snow geese on a nearby lake. I wasn’t used to seeing these spectacular birds there and realized there are so many birds I just hadn’t been noticing. I started using eBird to track sightings of rare birds. I saw an alert for a sage thrasher, a species you’d hardly ever see in Illinois. I went looking and found it in the middle of an RV park. That gave me the bug to start finding odd birds, chasing down rarities and keeping my own “life list.”
What motivates you to spend your free time traveling and looking for birds?
Alex Patia: I am motivated by finding new birds for the year, and every once in a while a lifer I’ve never seen before. Four times this year I drove to Mansfield hoping to see sage grouse. Three times I struck out. The fourth time I finally got to see this elusive, endangered bird in Washington, and that made it all worth it. The other thing that keeps me motivated is meeting other birders. There’s a whole community of people you run into again and again, showing up where rare birds have been reported on opposite ends of Washington.
What’s your most exciting bird sighting this year?
Alex Patia: The coolest for me personally was an American bittern in Skagit Flats. It’s a small wading bird that blends in almost perfectly with vegetation and is very difficult to spot. I was watching the cattails, and suddenly they seemed to come to life. A bird’s head poked out of the leaves and it started strutting through the marsh.
How does birding affect the way you see the world?
Alex Patia: I’m never not birding—which can be a problem when I’m talking with friends and coworkers. I’ll be focused on the conversation but also notice a really cool bird flying overhead. Once you’ve honed in and begun noticing what’s around you, it’s hard to turn that off. It opens your eyes to a world you didn’t realize was there all along.
What’s your advice for people who want to get into birding?
Alex Patia: First, buy a good field guide—I personally like the one by David Allen Sibley. Look through it, get comfortable with what the birds look like, and you’ll start realizing you’ve seen lots of them. It’s a great feeling when a picture from a book becomes a real, tangible thing. Next, get a pair of binoculars and start using them. Beyond that, spend time outside. You’ll start recognizing the common birds and when rarer species show up, they’ll stand out. If you don’t have time to go birding regularly, get a bird feeder and hang it outside your window. The birds will come to you.
What’s next for you?
Alex Patia: I’m planning my biggest birding trip yet for the year. It’ll take me to the east side of the Cascades, down to Walla Walla, out through the Columbia Gorge to the coast. One great thing about birding in Washington is there’s an incredible array of habitats on public lands, so seeing lots of very diverse birds is inevitable. Even on a bad birding day you’ll see interesting, cool things. Almost every day birding, I see something new and unexpected.